A convoy of armoured vehicles proceeds along a road during the Bophuthatswana stand-off in this 1994 file photo.  Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A convoy of armoured vehicles proceeds along a road during the Bophuthatswana stand-off in this 1994 file photo. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

TWENTY years ago this week, on March 12 1994, a military engagement in Bophuthatswana changed everything for South Africa, finally ending the homeland system and ending resistance aimed at derailing the first democratic election.

I remember the day well. For several weeks, I had been dispatched to Bophuthatswana by the Sunday Times to cover the homeland’s last stand against apartheid. The public service had been on strike for several weeks and the homeland’s hospitals and schools had all but ceased to function.

Bophuthatswana was supposedly the most successful "independent" ethnic homeland. Led by the sallow Lucas Mangope, it was a territory made up of scattered bits of South Africa.

As negotiations edged towards closure and a unified democratic South Africa became inevitable, Mangope, fellow homeland leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi of KwaZulu and a smattering of white right-wing parties formed the "Freedom Alliance". They refused to participate in talks until there was greater recognition of "regional autonomy", rejecting several concessions made by negotiators with threats of secession.

Constand Viljoen, leader of the Afrikaner Volksfront, was the mystery card in the pack. A much-respected (by white South Africa) former chief of the defence force, he was an unknown quantity. The defence force had a national "commando" system established to keep citizens militarily engaged in a reserve capacity. The question asked by those in the negotiations was: could Viljoen, as he frequently suggested, mobilise this force, armed with army-issue machine guns and radios, to mount military resistance to the transition?

It is easy to throw your head back and laugh at this prospect with the perfect hindsight of history. But back then, everything was touch and go. Bombs were going off in Soweto, right-wingers were shooting black people at unofficial roadblocks and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) was holding mass rallies. It was a serious question. Viljoen had to be humoured.

In December of 1994, the negotiating council agreed that the independent homelands would be reincorporated, but Mangope held out. He was after all, he said, leader of a "sovereign nation" and it would be in breach of international law. It was far-fetched, even slightly loony. The only countries that had once recognised its sovereignty had been South Africa and Transkei, both of which had agreed to its dissolution at the talks.

The national government, now converted into a unitary state, became increasingly annoyed. As former foreign minister Pik Botha told Mangope to his face: Bophuthatswana was established by a South African statute, which would be repealed. End of story.

On the ground, the people of Bophuthatswana were having none of it. Street protests, strikes and chaos erupted as Mangope banned political campaigning and set his security police on anyone involved in election activity. After three weeks of strikes, it all came to a head in the second week of March. On the Tuesday, striking staff at the Bophuthatswana Broadcasting Corporation took its chairman, Eddie Mangope — Lucas Mangope’s son — hostage. Students took over the campus of the homeland’s university. Police opened fire on demonstrators with live ammunition.

The next day, representatives of the Independent Electoral Commission under Judge Johann Kriegler were denied permission to allow voting in the homeland.

On the Thursday, the pressure began to tell and a group of disaffected policemen, accompanied by other public servants, handed a memorandum over to the South African ambassador, Tjaart van der Walt, demanding the right to participate in the election.

The police went on strike and people took to the streets, precipitating three days of lawlessness. The capital city’s Mega City shopping mall was the scene of looting. It was eventually set on fire. The Bophuthatswana Defence Force stepped in and secured central Mmabatho. There were a lot of people with their fingers on their triggers.

Finally, egged on by Mangope, the right wing played its military card. In the early hours of Friday morning, about 400 vehicles bearing thousands of volunteers massed on the border and then moved into Mmabatho, taking control of the airfield.

But, instead of the disciplined soldiers that Vijoen promised, they turned out to be a rag-tag army, many wearing the insignia of the ultraright AWB. They opened fire on looters and on civilians. By the end of "invasion", about 160 people would be treated for bullet wounds. More than 30 would perish.

South Africa was being run by the Transitional Executive Council (TEC), which dispatched Mac Maharaj and Pik Botha, among others, to talk sense into Mangope and his front man in the Freedom Alliance, Rowan Cronje. They got nowhere. At the insistence of the TEC, a large contingent of South African troops moved into position on the outskirts of Mmabatho. The pressure of the military build-up spooked the Freedom Alliance, which began to disintegrate, and soon homeland military turned on the right-wingers and, with the threat of overwhelming military force, forced them to leave.

The column of bakkies and cars, moving with passive aggressive slowness, wound its way towards the border. Then came the moment everything changed. Three members of the AWB — Alwyn Wolfaardt, Fanie Uys and Nic Fourie — driving an aged blue Mercedes-Benz, exchanged fire with Bophuthatswana troops. When I arrived on the scene, they were wounded and had crept from the vehicle. After some time, during which they were taunted at the vehicle’s side, a Bophuthatswana soldier lost his cool and opened fire. They were executed.

Photographer Cobus Bodenstein captured the moment as the sand kicked up around the bodies in a sensational front-page photograph that appeared in that week’s Sunday Times.

The scene would be remembered at a subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing. In one of those priceless moments of the transition, the soldier, Sgt Bernstein Menyatswe, addressed AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche at the hearing, saying: "I shot your soldiers because they brought war to Mafikeng." Terre’Blanche asked him why he had shot them when they were not armed. He replied that he believed one of them had reached for a gun. The commission accepted he had acted with a political motive and he was granted amnesty.

If there are any ethics professors out there, they might consider asking their students whether these killings were justified. They were cold-blooded, premeditated and clearly performed with intent. But there can be no gainsaying that the greater good was served. The effect was far-reaching. There and then, in the dust of Mmabatho, any threat of a right-wing rebellion against the new order came to an end.

The homeland system ended that day, as Mangope was formally removed from office. Viljoen left the Freedom Alliance the next day to form the Freedom Front, and announced he was participating in the election. Inkatha’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi could hold out no more and soon he too entered the election. The Terre’Blanche bubble was burst and he would become a figure of public ridicule.

As a column of South African troops rolled into Mmabatho, the people lined the streets and cheered. There was a genuine sense of liberation in the air. That day, everything changed. Never again would there be a serious military threat to the new order.

Hartley is editor at large.